MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF
A Love Story by
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
© 2003 Diane Sanfilippo
Before I reach the time in my life when my mind will no longer retain my most precious and personal memories, I feel an urgency to tell our story, the story of a boy named Billy, of how we met, and how much we loved.
Not only is this a love story, rather a story that recalls the death knell of an age of innocence in our society - forever gone. I have heard others call this era a lack of caring and/or knowledge, but most of us trusted our elected leaders to take care of business, and to provide the example in their daily lives, public and private, for the rest of us to follow. We respected our leaders, our President, our minister, our principal, and others who stood on the pedestal of honesty and trust.
Never again will young adults live in the carefree days of the early 1960’s, before the ‘hippies’, ‘free love’, and before television brought the horrors of war into almost every American home. Surely one remembers exactly what he or she were doing and where they were while a horrified nation watched our President assassinated on a sunny afternoon in Dallas, but this was just the beginning of the end.
It would not be long before our national news consisted of roll after roll of newsreel, showing, in graphic detail, our sons, our brothers, and our husbands cut down in cold blood right before our very eyes. Soon, again horrified, we watched another of our leaders fall to an assassin’s bullet, then another and we all began to wonder who would be next. How can we ever forget the flaming monks protesting the war, the rows of flag-draped coffins waiting on the tarmac to be loaded onto cargo planes for the long journey ‘home’, or the children burned by napalm fleeing naked down a dirt road? Yes, our days of innocence were numbered, and so were my own.
Everyone has a story that is unique and worthy of telling, but most families and friends listen with one ear closed and never really hear what the storyteller has to say, their memories forever tossed about on the wind, as if the words were leaves to be blown away and forgotten. Still others do not want to hear the truth, or to acknowledge their role in another’s life, and in this context, I must make sure this will not happen to our story. Perhaps if one truly listens, much of my own life will fall into place with understanding, since my very being lies buried in these pages.
In today’s world where living together and pre-marital sex is as common as sliced bread, it is not often a love such as ours exists where both partners fall more in love with the other as each day passes. Certainly, while we were by no means the first, nor will we be the last, it is a rare moment in time when two young people know, from just one glance, their lives have forever changed, and their yesterdays no longer have meaning. This is not just a love story, but also a story of survival and triumph over evil where the bonds of love were far stronger than those who wished to sever them. Yes, love wins out in the end, but how and why, well dear reader, you will just have to bear with me while I tell our story.
I have always had difficulty not telling the truth, it shows on my face, and my family knew instantly when I was ‘fibbing’, or at the very least ‘exaggerating’. Like most anything I decide to do, I could not ‘fib’ just a little bit, but made up glorious stories not believed by anyone with any sense at all. I suppose this was my ‘creativity’ coming to light at an early age when I told all in my first grade class that my father was a ‘big game hunter’, since ‘salesman’ was not a very interesting occupation. Although, from the time they could understand, I have always taught my children if you tell the truth you never have to remember what you have said. For this reason, and since I doubt if I could fabricate a story more poignant, this is the truth, exactly as it happened.
Although not blessed with instant recall, my memory is like a camera and takes a photo of time and events, and from these stored photos, I have recreated my story. Most of the dialogue contains the exact words spoken, while the other recalls what we would have said during certain situations since I clearly remember our reactions, and perhaps the very words we spoke. At times when I felt ‘stuck’, it was as if an angel whispered the words in my ear, and perhaps he did. I do know that he sat beside me throughout, jarring my aging memory with his own still young one, I just know the words and memories I was looking for seemed to pop into my mind as if by magic, or another more divine hand.
Needless to say the entire story is the truth, unflattering at times to all involved, but the truth nonetheless. My family, and selected friends, may be the only ones to read this story. Some of my children, for their own reasons, may choose not to read it, but I want them to know I wrote this for them and for their children. After all, it is a story about them, since through Billy, and through me, they are who they are, and who they will become.
I have lived a good life for the most part. At least I have tried in the last years, as age and illness has caught up with me, to be a truly kind person, and if that is my only epitaph, I will have led a worthy life. I have been a good mother and a good wife, maybe not the best, but the best I knew how to be under the circumstances. Perhaps I have been a better mother than a wife, at least the second time around, but by the time my story is over I fervently hope that all will understand why I could never give wholly of myself, and of my heart, to any man other than my darling Billy. I have never wanted to love in that way again since I doubt if I could survive another parting. My heart was never the same from the moment Billy McConnell walked into my life, and when it was all over, the remains of that same heart had hardened into a lump of coal for fear it might shatter if ever again I loved anyone ‘more than life itself’.
Why now when the effort involved in remembering broke open the scars on my heart and laid bare the wounds, while not forgotten, had mostly healed? Why not when the memories still lay fresh in my mind and my empty nights seemed to stretch on forever? For the very reason I did not wish to offend or insult anyone, but now it is safe to be honest since most of the villains have now gone to wherever villains go after they have finished making trouble and creating heartache.
My life began the night I met Billy McConnell. He was perfect, the most handsome boy I had ever seen, and he looked exactly like the ‘mystery boy’ of my adolescent and teen-age dreams with the exception of his dark hair. His penetrating pure blue eyes and aquiline features, give or take a scar or two, were almost too perfect, and he was almost too handsome to be real. The very best thing about him was he did not seem to know it; or at least he did not act as if he did. This is where I shall begin my story – that fateful day when my life, and Billy’s life, changed forever.
This is our story, exactly as it happened, the good and the bad, without fabrication, or any elaborate plots - just the story of two young people, too much in love whose forever was not as long as forever should be.
Chapter 1 – We Meet
Christmas break of my freshman year at North Georgia College was filled with parties and evenings out with old boyfriends from high school and some boys I had recently met – but I would be returning to school with one of my old boyfriend’s class ring hanging on a gold chain around my neck. Alex was quite handsome, and I had always teased him and said he looked like a Greek god, and so he did. Soon our mutual friends began to refer to him as Zeus, but he seemed to take the teasing in stride, and in no way did this slow his pursuit, or mine, whichever way it happened.
Not surprisingly, he was of Greek heritage, although his natural father died in WWII, and his mother’s second husband adopted him.
We were about the same age but he was a year behind and in his senior year at Georgia Military Academy. In all, we had been dating off and on for over two years, and had gone steady, broken up, gone steady again for most of this time, with other boyfriends in between, and often at the same time.
I had just turned eighteen on December 16, and had been the youngest in my high school graduating class. My mother must have used her abundant charm at the elementary school to have me accepted in the 1st grade when I was only five years of age, and the cut-off birth date had been September 1. I had long become used to always being the youngest and one of the shortest girls in my class, but being the last of my class to get a driver’s license was probably the most difficult distinction I had to swallow. The best part was, perhaps by being younger than all the other girls, I had been able to choose boyfriends both from my own class and the class below mine since most of the latter were my age or older. Now I seldom even thought about my ‘youth’ or realized I was also probably the youngest in my college class too.
For me, there had always been something special about a boy in uniform, and that was about all it took to win my heart. Alex, with his brooding good looks, in his gray G.M.A. uniform was a knockout, although we had begun to date before he transferred schools, so the attraction had doubled. His home was in Sandy Springs, but for reasons that were never clear to me; his mother took him out of the local high school and enrolled him in G.M.A. Whether it was his friends, his grades, or our dating she was not happy about I never knew for sure, but she made certain miles separated him from ‘our crowd’ since G.M.A. was on the opposite side of Atlanta and, at that time, a male only boarding school. This left me unable to see Alex every weekend since rarely did his mother allow him to come home. Although never a major problem for me since I did not allow his ring, or any other ring, keep me from dating other boys, Alex was miserable. He had not even been able to take me to my senior prom since it fell during his exam week, and I had to go with another old boyfriend who was the best dancer I had ever dated.
While I had not planned to date anyone in particular over the holidays, Alex was at home too, and he called me. It seemed we had never been apart and we picked up our previous relationship as if months and another ‘serious steady’ had not intervened. We had been together almost every night, at least as much as possible. Although, when Alex had something to do with his family, or his mother simply would not allow him to use the car, I still managed to date other boys. I had always had a bad habit of ‘two-timing’ my boyfriends, and I believe this distasteful trait came from my own insecurities. In other words one boy in my hand and another in the bush, so I would never be without a date, or ‘alone’. I could think of nothing more frightening than spending a weekend night stranded at my parent’s house since that was the time when all hell usually broke loose.
Truthfully, I do not remember much about that holiday except for ‘going steady’ with Alex for the third time, and dates with two boys from the college. Another old boyfriend, just out of the Marines, called constantly, and while I would have liked to see Larry, I just could not make time in my purposefully busy schedule, even though he threatened to come over to my house and ‘kidnap’ me. Larry had ‘dropped’ me my junior year in high school, breaking my heart, or so I thought, because I was not ‘wild’ enough for him. In other words, I was not a slut, and I would not sleep with him. Now he must have thought I had ‘grown up’ while at college, but he would have been sorely disappointed.
To explain the charm of boys in uniform perhaps related to my childhood since my father was a retired Navy officer and I had lived around uniforms almost all of my vagabond life. Somehow, I knew it was my destiny to remain connected with the military, in some way, until the end of my days. I had never been a shy child nor withered on the vine when facing a new school and a classroom full of new faces with each move from base to base. In fact, this scenario probably made me more outgoing and enabled me to make more friends than if had I been forced to go to school with the same children day after day, year after year. I do believe I might have become bored.
With the holidays over, and vacation time behind us, Alex begged his parents to allow him to drive me back to my college, and reluctantly, I am sure, they agreed. So early on the cold, crisp morning of January 3, 1961, we left Sandy Springs in his parents’ big car and headed north towards the college, and little did I know I was heading straight into my destiny.
With melting snow from a recent light snowfall creating a bit of a hazard, Alex drove slowly as he took me back to North Georgia College. The dark charcoal clouds hung low beneath a pale gray sky with no hint of the sun, and we both thought it might snow again. Alex laughed at the prospect of being stuck in Dahlonega, and looked forward to a blizzard, although I had no clue what I would have done with him! As our trip continued, slowly the clouds became less menacing, and finally seemed barely visible as if wisps of smoke intertwined like lace in the now pale blue sky, and suddenly the sun was shining, not brilliantly but still shining. With the appearance of the sun, Alex’s hope of becoming snowed in disappeared as quickly as the dark clouds.
As we traveled into the hills that begin a gradual, ascent to the Blue Ridge Mountains there was still plenty of snow on the ground and it hugged the sides of the road where the wheels of passing motorists had thrown it aside, although it was now all black and dirty. The snow lying undisturbed beneath the trees at the edge of the woods was still pristine and white, so I concentrated on watching the sun sparkling off the small drifts that hugged the tree line as the large car took us towards the foothills of the distant mountains.
Earlier we had found a bottle of ice-cold vodka in the backseat of the car, probably left over from his parent’s New Year’s Eve celebration, and both of us took a straight swig or two. That little bit was all it took to make me high, and I was giggling and crying at the same time as we neared the college. Alex’s face remained deadpan and he seemed to be looking for the words he wanted to say, but as usual, he could not find them. Perhaps had he found the right words it would have made a difference in the direction my life was about to take, but more than likely, nothing anyone could have said or done would have changed what happened this fateful day.
I cried as Alex, after one last long kiss, left me in front of Lewis Hall, the co-ed dorm, but just as soon as his car turned the corner onto the highway for the drive back to Atlanta, I wiped my tears. I then slipped his ring, dangling from the new gold chain he had given me for Christmas, inside my sweater. My bad habit was not about to change now with 1000 uniformed cadets in attendance, since North Georgia has almost always been a military college for the boys, and the co-eds only numbered about 300, just the minimum required for state funding. I was not about to miss a minute of fun or sit in the dorm on any weekend, Alex or no Alex. In fact I already had a date for the coming Saturday.
I checked into my room, left my bags, and headed to the canteen where cadets and co-eds gathered to play cards, drink coffee and surreptitiously hold hands under the tables. Any display of public affection, or any manner of touch between cadet and co-ed called for strict and instant discipline as part of the cadet’s military code. True love seldom denied, all had learned to be ingenious in the ways to conceal clasped hands, and most knew the safe places where a couple could meet to steal a kiss or two.
Looking around the now almost empty canteen, I found only one friendly face in Allen, an older cadet who was as kind of heart as he was plain in looks. It took only a few words and he instantly recognized I had been drinking. He knew suspension was the penalty for this most grievous of crimes and he suggested that we walk down to the Dixie Grill on the corner across from the main entrance to the college, thus getting me off campus where the administration had no authority. There he plied me with black coffee until he felt I was sober enough to show up for the first night of my new job in the college library.
I do not think I ever thanked Allen so I should do so now. "Allen, thank you! With all my heart, thank you!" How different my life might have been had you not cared and come to my rescue.
It was the beginning of a new quarter and the library was eerily quiet that first night back from break. Most of us had not even met our professors, much less been assigned class work over the holidays, and I was surprised to find almost every table filled with cadets and a few co-eds, probably because this was one of the ‘safe’ places to hold hands. My station that first night, since I had not been ‘trained’ to do anything else, was the central checkout desk, and I was excited about working there since I could see everyone, and even more important be seen. This was essential in order to meet new cadets.
One could say I was a bit ‘boy crazy’, and I had been as long as I could remember. I was never satisfied unless some member of the opposite sex was interested in me. I also knew that my aunt, uncle, and grandmother who had paid my tuition, had promised me only one year of college, so finding a college-educated husband was pretty much my goal, with a Mrs. Degree in mind instead of a BS. From the first day I arrived on campus, I felt as if I had died and gone to heaven, and I was determined to date my share of cadets.
The first quarter I had been about as serious as I had ever been over a drummer in Band Company, and, as I learned many years later, I was his first ‘real’ girlfriend. We had dated almost all of the fall quarter, but not long before exams, we had a major disagreement about priorities that ended our relationship. Don was in the college dance band and we often spent our Saturday nights at one dance or another, but frankly, I did not like to sit at a side table with the girlfriends of the other band members while Don played. Only during the band’s breaks could we dance to the records that substituted for the ‘live’ music, but I wanted to be dancing all night long, not sitting, and his breaks were rare, although this was not the reason we parted ways. I had thought Don and I were ‘over’, but not long before we left for home on Christmas break I had been told by a friend of his that he wanted to date me again, and I was seriously considering it although I had no intention of wearing his ring and being tied down to one cadet.
I wanted to date, have fun, and play the field. At least for this second quarter, this left the third and final quarter of my freshman year the time to get serious and to find a ‘mate’. I had spent far too much time ‘tied down’ to Don to ‘sample’ the wares, only dating two or three other cadets, and now I was about to begin ‘playing the field’.
The best-laid plans never seem to reach fruition, and this night, mine came to a screeching halt when Billy McConnell walked into my life and into my heart forever.
Have you ever had the feeling that someone was watching you, but when you looked up, you could not find that person? Well, this was the feeling I had that night, as if someone’s gaze was directed at the front desk and on me, yet when I looked up all I saw were heads bowed over books.
Finally, after about an hour feeling those same eyes watching me, this incredibly handsome cadet, one I had never seen before, because I would definitely have remembered, approached the desk to check out a book, or so I thought. Surely, he was not the one who had been sneaking glances at me. He was far too good-looking, and certainly already ‘taken’. Strangely, as he approached, I could feel my heart beating wildly, and when he reached the desk, instead of holding out a book to be stamped, he leaned towards me, with both arms resting on the highly polished wood and said, "Hi doll, what are you doing Saturday night?"
He forever swore he never said this, but perhaps out of his own nervousness, he just forgot what he said, but I will never forget. Unfortunately, or fortunately as it turned out, when I answered that I already had a date for Saturday night, he replied, "Figures, a good looking girl like you would already have a date this late in the week."
Well, I did have a date I had made it during our vacation, and breaking dates was not a very smart thing to do at a small school, particularly if the cadet was popular, and Dave was popular. Although not remarkably handsome, he was pleasant looking, kind, fun to be with, and I would not treat him badly. Dave and I had been out one or two times before, and once he had even driven from his home in Gainesville to mine outside Atlanta to take me out. Although I doubted I would ever become serious about him, I could not, nor would not, hurt him by breaking a date so far into the week. Nor would I risk my own reputation, in spite of this brash and handsome cadet who made my heart feel as if a million butterflies were fluttering inside.
After his last comment, the cadet turned and went back to his seat too quickly for me to read his nametag, but I knew then who had been watching me.
For perhaps another half an hour or so we would look at one another and then turn away when the other looked back.
Finally, he stood up again, put on his jacket, and picked up his books while my heart sank as I thought to myself, "Diane, you really messed up this time; you will never see him again!"
Much to my surprise, and more to my delight, instead of turning to leave the library, he walked back to the desk, looked at me with his deep blue eyes, and said in his soft Southern accent, "Hi, my name is Billy McConnell. I’m a junior in ‘F’ Company and I’m from Griffin, Georgia. I am sorry if I was rude a few minutes ago, but what are you doing on Sunday night?" All of this, he said in just one breath!
I found myself, for once, at a loss for words, and barely managed to mumble, "Nothing that I know of."
Finally regaining my composure, I told him my name, where I was from, and then he told me he would pick me up at the dorm about 5:00 p.m. on Sunday evening.
Although freshmen were only permitted to date one night a week, we often just ‘forgot’ to sign out, which I would have to do.
As we finalized our plans, he told me we could go to Gainesville, the only decent sized town nearby, have supper, and then go to a movie, if that was O.K. with me, and of course, I agreed. As it worked out, just as I was regretting my decision about not breaking my date with Dave, this made me even more attractive to this handsome cadet and, as I later learned, he considered me a challenge. Just as he faced most of the obstacles in his life, he would not give up.
I was ecstatic that this cadet, who took my breath away, had come back and asked me out again. Something about him made my heart feel so full, as if it were about to burst. All too soon, after we worked out the details, he said good night, turned, and walked out the front door. Later he told me the moment he walked out the door, he wanted to walk back inside, wait for me to get off and walk me to the dorm, but once the door closed behind him, he was too embarrassed to come back. Instead, he leaped into the air, shouted, "Yes!" to the streetlight, and then walked to his own dorm.
When my shift was over and the library closed, I ran back to the dorm, rushed up the three flights of stairs to the freshman floor and into the room of our sophomore monitors. Out of breath, I could barely talk, but I asked to see their yearbook to look for a picture of this handsome, charming cadet who had just asked me out. When Linda asked me his name, I was so excited I could not remember his first name, but I remembered ‘McConnell’, and there were two cadets with that same last name. Well, we found the first, but he definitely was not the right one, and then I saw him, McConnell, William E. – Griffin.
Once again, just by looking at his picture, and he looked so much older now than he had last year, my heart swelled with longing.
Margaret and Linda knew only a little bit about him although Linda’s boyfriend was his Company Commander, and they both warned me to be careful, agreed he was ‘cute’, ‘fast’ and ‘rich’, and he would show me a ‘good time’. They told me he did not date anyone at the college now, nor had he dated much at all on campus, but usually drove home each weekend since he had his own car, which in itself was a rarity.
As I stared at his picture, I was mesmerized, and somehow I knew, I just knew my future lay in those blue, blue eyes, and I would forever become entwined with this handsome cadet, and he was ‘the one’. Of course I did not admit this, not even to myself; it was just a feeling – a feeling that I had known him all of my life – a feeling that I wanted to know him for the rest of my life.
Now I just had to get through classes and Saturday night and maintain my composure, but his name remained on the tip of my tongue, "Billy, Billy McConnell," I repeated to get used to the sound, but never in my wildest dreams did I think some day I would become Mrs. ‘Billy’ McConnell.